By Anne Behler
Information Literacy Librarian
Penn State University Libraries
Member of OITP E-book Task Force
Uttering the words, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you” generally goes against the fiber of who librarians are as a profession. Sure, there are circumstances in which the library is not the right service for the problem, but I’d be hard pressed to find a colleague who wouldn’t bend over backward to, at the very least, assist a person with locating the right service. Built on a foundation of free information to all who would seek it, libraries are symbols of democracy and champions of open access to all forms of publication. So it’s certainly a tough pill to swallow that this is a line that we may find ourselves uttering more frequently, thanks to the proliferation of books that are only published in electronic format and served up by accounts designed for private, individual access only.
Consider this encounter:
One morning this week, our general reference desk received a phone call from an individual who was doing research. He was actually located at another, smaller college in the state, but his librarians could not help him. So he tried us (a much larger, state resource university). His basic problem:
1) He does not own a personal computer or electronic reader and does not want one.
2) He located a book through Amazon.com that he very much wanted to access — it’s only available in e-book format both through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
3) His library does not have a device lending program, nor does it allow installation of anything on its public-use computers. Thus any proprietary software required to read an e-book was unavailable to him through his library.
4) He was willing to do anything so that his library could have access to this title and therefore lend it to him and others, such as buy the e-book and donate it to the collection. However, this is not possible with the e-book files, which are account dependent information.
5) He was wondering whether any of the libraries involved could ILL the title to one another for his use (again, not possible due to account and device dependent information).
I think you get the picture. Because this title was published in e- only (an author/publisher choice, no doubt) this individual who did not have access to personal technology devices was at a complete loss – and I was at a complete loss to assist him beyond giving suggestions about how he might borrow computers or devices to be able to download the files and read them. (He was also hoping to print out the book once acquired, which was not likely to be possible either, nor does it comply with copyright, of course). Or he could talk with his librarian about what specifically is required to be able to view the e-books on a machine at the library and hope that they could bend enough to let him install the viewing software on one machine.
He and I had a very good discussion about the issues at hand, and I think he went away feeling like he had something to advocate for — for himself and for libraries. But in that moment that he asked his question, and I tried to respond, I could not rely on any traditional library tools to assist him. No interlibrary loan, no printing, no “I’ll purchase it for the library on your behalf and lend it to you,” etc.
Some thoughts that I hope will prompt further discussion:
At lot of discussions around e-books and electronic content focus on marketing the e-books that people can access through the library, how to make good collection development decisions about what to purchase and how to negotiate fair licenses. And I’ve heard many of us acknowledge that an e- only library is not something that promotes access for all; print copies that might duplicate e-book collections are going to be with us for a long time to come. But this situation was a stark reminder to me that we should give a nod to the elephant in the room — okay, maybe just one of the many elephants in the room — and acknowledge and address the issue of information that isn’t available at all. Or rather, is only available to those who decide to purchase a luxury device and create an information-sharing, privacy-compromising account. Access to information in this environment is certainly not equal, and so far, there doesn’t seem to be much the library can do about it. Is this something we are willing to accept? If not, how can we speak up?
The views expressed in this guest blog post do not necessarily reflect that of the ALA.